NEW YORK (AP) — Two men have admitted to taking 6-year-old Etan Patz on the day he vanished nearly 36 years ago; one is on trial for murder and the other was never charged, a defense attorney said Monday. Both stories can't be true.
"Two confessions. Which person is more likely to have been a predator?" Harvey Fishbein asked the jury during closing arguments in the case against Pedro Hernandez. He suggested the real killer is Jose Ramos, a convicted pedophile considered the prime suspect for years.
Ramos, currently in jail in Pennsylvania, said in 1988 that he was "90 percent sure" that a boy he took from a park and tried to molest was Etan, according to former federal law enforcement officials who testified for Hernandez's defense. A former jailhouse informant also said Ramos admitted to molesting Etan the day he disappeared and said officials would never find the body.
Etan's body has never been found.
Hernandez told police he lured Etan to the basement of a neighborhood convenience store where he choked him and disposed of the body in a stairwell about two blocks away. Etan had been on his way to the store to buy a drink before school, his mother testified.
Hernandez was a teenage stock clerk there at the time Etan disappeared but had never been considered a suspect. His name appears in law enforcement paperwork only one time during their lengthy probe. The Maple Shade, New Jersey, man made the stunning admissions in 2012 after police received a tip from a relative that he may have been involved in the case.
Ramos could not have been with Etan on May 25, 1979, if the boy was near the corner store with Hernandez, Fishbein said. And similarly, "Pedro could not have seen Etan Patz at the corner and taken him down to the basement if he was with Jose Ramos."
Ramos has denied any involvement in the boy's disappearance. He said he would invoke his right against self-incrimination if he were called to testify.
Prosecutors will give a summation Tuesday, but assistant district attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon has argued that Hernandez's confession is sound. He is seen on hours of video confessing to the crime, frequently repeating the details.
"I grabbed him by the neck and started choking him," said Hernandez, now 54. "I was nervous. My legs were jumping. I wanted to let go, but I just couldn't let go. I felt like something just took over me."
Fishbein said the admissions are the fictional ravings of a mentally ill man with a low IQ. The confession video shows "a man sitting there convinced he killed a child — on a day that he doesn't know, at a time he doesn't know, at a location near a bus stop that he doesn't know," Fishbein told jurors.
"As we can see, there's no details he can give," the defense lawyer said. "But he's subdued because he believes he did this."
Etan's case has confounded law enforcement for decades. His photo was among the first to appear on a milk carton and his disappearance helped galvanize the national missing-children's movement. The day he went missing was later named National Missing Children's Day.
The trial began in late January, and jurors have heard from dozens of witnesses. Members of a prayer circle testified that Hernandez made tearful admissions during a retreat in the summer of 1979 that matched some of what he told authorities on video 33 years later. One said Hernandez also admitted abusing the boy. When talking to police, Hernandez denied molesting Etan.
A former neighbor testified during a front-porch chat, Hernandez described how a boy in New York threw a ball at him, and "he lost it" and strangled the child. About two years later, Hernandez told 16-year-old girlfriend Daisy Rivera he wanted to come clean about "something terrible" — he had strangled a "gringo muchacho," or white guy, who offended him while in New York.
But Fishbein argued there was no real evidence to support Hernandez's confession.
"As I told you in the very beginning, Pedro Hernandez is the only witness against himself," he said. "The stories he told over the years, including in 2012, and since, are the only evidence. Yet he is inconsistent and unreliable."
"Pedro Hernandez is not a child killer," Fishbein said.